Remembering Tenor Jon Vickers

Canadian tenor Jon Vickers (1926-2015)
Canadian tenor Jon Vickers (1926-2015)

 

The Canadian tenor Jon Vickers, who brought “a colossal voice and raw dramatic intensity” to some of opera’s most powerful roles, passed away on Friday following a battle with Alzheimer’s disease. He was 88.

After studying at Toronto’s Royal Conservatory of Music, Vickers rose to prominence in the late 1950s and early 60s with appearances at London’s Royal Opera House, Covent Garden and the Metropolitan Opera. His recordings suggest that he had an extraordinary ability to lose himself in the character and dramatically “go for broke.” His personality was reportedly volatile and quick-tempered. During a 1975 Dallas Opera performance of Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde, Vickers broke character to chastise the audience for coughing. You can hear a recording of the incident here.

Here is an excerpt from Vickers’ 1960 recording of Verdi’s Otello with the Rome Opera Orchestra and Chorus. The haunting Dio! mi potevi scagliar is from the third act of Otello. The jealous Otello is losing his grip on reality, believing that Desdemona has been unfaithful with Cassio. Following her exit from the room, he is left alone to ask God, “Why have you afflicted me in this manner?”

This late-Verdi score, which premiered in 1887 (over 15 years after Aida), integrates vocal lines and orchestra in a remarkable way. Following a long chromatic descent into Hell, we hear a numb, obsessively repeated string motive as Otello enters a dark inner world of contemplation:

Here are a few more links:

Four Sea Interludes

oceanToday is the 100th birthday of twentieth century English composer Benjamin Britten (1913-1976). Let’s celebrate by listening to Britten’s Four Sea Interludes from the opera, Peter Grimes. Played during scene changes, these interludes express the drama of the opera’s unsettling story. As you listen, consider the mood that Britten evokes and pay attention to the orchestration. You can read the synopsis of the entire opera here.

Here is a recording of a live 1990 performance by Leonard Bernstein and the Boston Symphony at their summer home in Tanglewood. It turned out to be Bernstein’s final concert.

  1. Dawn – Lento e tranquillo (0:00)
  2. Sunday Morning – Allegro spiritoso (3:41)
  3. Moonlight – Andante comodo e rubato (7:42)
  4. Storm – Presto con fuoco (12:42)


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As you listened to the first interlude could you sense the shimmering sea, the splash of waves and a vast expanse of unbroken water stretching into the horizon? The music reflects a calm sea, but underneath there is a sense of foreboding. In the second interlude we hear church bells ringing and the sounds of seagulls. Towards the end of the final interlude as the storm subsides, the eternal presence of the sea brings a feeling of calm and safety…or is there still something slightly menacing lurking below the surface? The final lines sung by Peter Grimes are:

[quote]“What harbor shelters peace, away from tidal waves, away from storms? What harbor can embrace terrors and tragedies?”[/quote]

You can learn more about the life and music of Benjamin Britten here and here.